The Technofix Is In

An Ecomodernist Manifesto fails to acknowledge the political forces at work in the battle over climate change, and so fails to chart a way forward

The world’s best scientists are warning that the world is warming inexorably, the oceans are becoming acidic and have turned into a “plastic soup,” and we are in the middle of the kind of mass extinction event not seen on the planet in millions of years. But don’t worry — a new breed of environmentalists has just released a manifesto declaring that, with a little faith in technology, humanity can move into a “great” new century of prosperity and universal human dignity on a thriving planet. How can this be?

NuclearPhoto by Mike, on Flickr The manifesto’s faith in technological breakthroughs means it substitutes a kind of Californian positivity for the hard reality of climate politics.

For some years the California-based Breakthrough Institute has been vigorously promoting what it claims to be a new “post-environmentalism,” one highly critical of the mainstream environment movement and no longer wedded to the verities of the past.

In a much-discussed 2004 article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” the Institute’s founders, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, argued that mainstream greens had become too professionalised and insular. Caught up in Beltway politics, Big Green failed to recognize that the American political landscape had shifted well to the right. Their messages no longer cut through, and environmentalism needed a bold new vision to inspire citizens.

So far so good. But the bold new vision turned out not to be one calling for a far-reaching shake-up, but the opposite — collaborating with the same conservatives that Shellenberger and Nordhaus said had been winning the battle.

The institute maintains a determinedly optimistic view of the world, although the bright facade frequently veils a rancor directed against other environmentalists. This rancor perhaps explains some of its baffling policy stances.

The institute frequently attacks renewable energy and energy efficiency, at times with a highly tendentious use of data. For an organization concerned about spiraling greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hard to work out why the group is so dismissive, except as a way of differentiating itself from mainstream environmentalism. Conversely, it vigorously promotes nuclear power, also deploying data and arguments in a misleading way.

Nuclear power has become an obsession for the institute, a kind of signifier by which players in the environmental debate are allocated to the “good guys” box or the “bad guys” box. In a perfect example of mimesis, the dogmatic stance of some anti-nuclear campaigners is reflected back by these pro-nuclear campaigners.

Describing themselves as “ecomodernists,” those gathered around The Breakthrough Institute are not anti-science; they are after all ecomodernists. But in order to maintain their belief in a bright new future, they must find ways to temper or reinterpret the increasingly dire warnings from the world’s scientists. The preferred strategy is to scan the world for good news stories and from them create an alternative perceptual reality. (The recently launched “Bright Spots” is a similar approach.)

And this has led them to their most audacious declaration to date: the publication, last week, of what they are calling An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a self-consciously provocative attempt to make sense of what some scientists are calling “the Anthropocene,” or the Age of Humans. In the end, however, the manifesto’s faith in technological breakthroughs means it substitutes a kind of Californian positivity for the hard reality of climate politics. As a roadmap out of our ecological and social predicaments it leads us nowhere.

But before I go any further, first some background to understand how we got here.

Anthropocene: good or bad?

When Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term “the Anthropocene” in the year 2000, he was expressing his frustration at the inability of his fellow scientists to see that human activity has changed the Earth System, not just on its surface, but in fundamental ways. We have become so powerful, he argued, that we now rival the great forces of nature, to the point where we have disturbed the functioning of the planet as a whole.

In saying that Earth had passed out of the Holocene epoch and into the Anthropocene, Crutzen mostly expressed anxiety about the effect of carbon emissions and the unfolding catastrophe of climate change. It was global warming above all that he identified as the central process driving Earth into a new and dangerous epoch.

Yet as the scientific debate about the Anthropocene unfolded, some associated with The Breakthrough Institute began to reframe it in an unexpected way. If we live on an Earth dominated by humans, they reasoned, why not embrace our role as “the God species”? If humans have become the dominant force, why not extend our domination and turn it to the good rather than pull back?

The ecomoderns believe that human beings are not destructive creatures — and certainly not sinful ones as some greens imply — but creative, ingenious and basically well-meaning. If it is our destiny to inherit Earth, then the arrival of the Anthropocene is the fulfilment of that destiny.

One scientist close to The Breakthrough Institute, landscape ecologist Erle Ellis, began to do what no one had anticipated. He started to put the word “good” next to the word “Anthropocene.” He wrote of humanity’s transition to a higher level of planetary significance as “an amazing opportunity” and of how “we will be proud of the planet we create in the Anthropocene.”

For many, this was a jaw-dropping reframing of Anthropocene science. But for conservative environmentalists, like the influential Andrew Revkin at The New York Times, the “good Anthropocene” neatly reversed the dispiriting message of a collapsing Earth system, and so it had immediate appeal. (You can find more of Revkin’s thoughts on the Anthropocene here and here.)

There are facts and there are interpretations put on facts, and sometimes the most robust facts cannot penetrate the defensive walls of the determined optimist. Voltaire satirized Leibniz’s belief “that good ultimately will prevail in the world” in Candide (published in 1759 and subtitled l’Optimisme). But neither the harshest facts nor the sharpest satire can dissuade those determined to declare, “Well, I’m an optimist.”

In the hands of the ecomodernists, optimism isn’t used as a torch to light the way forward, but rather as a cudgel with which to beat intellectual opponents into submission — because, especially in the United States, to be less than optimistic is to be, in a way, un-American. The ecomodernists have been trying to achieve a monopoly on optimism as a way of winning the debate about how to balance human interests with the needs of wild nature. In the end, it doesn’t work, as the relentless optimism in their manifesto comes across as detached and dreamy, and blind to the hard truths of political combat.

A new manifesto

Many were aghast that people claiming to be environmentalists could so misread the science of climate change as to append “good” to “Anthropocene.” How can a happy future be conjured from the devastation that will be visited on millions of people by global warming, much of which is already locked in to the climate system?

Undeterred, and as if emboldened by the dismay, The Breakthrough Institute has now gone one better. An Ecomodernist Manifesto, signed by 18 “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” associated with the institute, is not satisfied with proclaiming that we can look forward to a good Anthropocene. The manifesto declares that we are entering a great Anthropocene.

What force can turn a gloomy prognosis into a golden future? The answer, of course, is technology. The manifesto’s authors are convinced that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

For those who believe we must embrace low-emissions technology (i.e. all of us who recognize the reality of anthropogenic climate change) the manifesto is oddly selective, dismissing many large-scale renewable energy technologies (especially wind power and biomass), and taking a skeptical view of solar energy’s potential.

And so the manifesto returns to the ecomoderns’ peculiar obsession: only nuclear power can give us climate stabilization. But, the authors concede, the nuclear industry is flat on its face in most places, so we must wait for the next generation of nuclear fission (or even fusion!) plants, before which opposition will surely melt away. In the meantime, we will need to build more hydroelectric dams and construct “fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage” technology.

Here the ability to set aside science is on full display. The manifesto does not say how long we will need to wait for the next generation of nuclear plants, or how much of the global carbon budget will be used up while we cool our heels. Perhaps it might take 20 years for the first plants to be built, and 40 before they are making a large dent in global emissions. By then the planet will be, in Christine Lagard’s arresting phrase, “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled,” and there will be no way to rescue the situation.

If we must wait a long time for the solution, the standby of carbon capture and storage is almost as speculative. Even “clean coal’s” boosters accept that the technology will not be cutting global emissions significantly for two or three decades.

Those who signed the manifesto must “know” all this, so their stance can only be described as a form of denial or at least evasion, one that selectively permits certain facts through the optimo-filter while blocking or downplaying others.

Politics gone missing

The ecomoderns’ techno-fetishism is possible only because they don’t think about politics. It is true that thinking about the politics of climate change is depressing. For those who “embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future,” the easiest path is to ignore the messy world of politics and focus one’s gaze on humankind’s amazing technological achievements.

And so in the manifesto, which tells a story of how we got here and where we should go, there is no mention of the forces, national and international, that have given us rising carbon dioxide concentrations, acidifying oceans and all the rest. We look in vain to find reference to the proven power of corporations and lobbyists to stop environmental laws, or to the total victory of money politics in the United States, now entrenched after Citizens United. Exxon and organized denialism do not appear even between the lines.

For the ecomoderns, the story of the past and the story of the future revolve around one thing: “Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge.” It’s an entire historiography in which the human relationship to the natural world depends essentially on human ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is not kings, presidents, proletarians or generals who make history — but rather scientists, inventors and engineers, and it is they who will save us.

It’s a Silicon Valley view of the world, one of heroic inventors like Steve Jobs, who disrupt the old and bring in the new to improve our lives. This position is a defense of the status quo and is the same one argued by those who have resisted all climate protection legislation that would disrupt the structure of power, not least in the coal lobby’s appeal to the pipe dream of “clean coal.”

If you believe that solving the climate change problem “is fundamentally a technological challenge,” then we are in this mess not because of the power of the fossil fuel lobby, not because of the influence of the campaign of denial, not because of money politics, not because persuading consumers to accept a price on carbon seems too hard, and not because getting international cooperation has been fraught. No, we are in this mess because technology has not evolved quickly enough to avoid it.

Yet no one involved in the climate change debate can be unaware that the technologies to sharply reduce global emissions have been available for a long time. Nor can they be unaware that for at least 15 years every study of the economics of transforming the energy economies of nations like the United States shows that the cost to GDP would extremely small. An exhaustive assessment in the latest IPCC report has been summarized like this:

Ambitious climate protection would cost only 0.06 percentage points of growth each year. This means that instead of a growth rate of about 2 percent per year, we would see a growth rate of 1.94 percent per year. Thus economic growth would merely continue at a slightly slower pace.

The roadblock to climate mitigation has never been technological. Nor has it been economic. It has been political. The ecomoderns’ claim that we must wait for new technologies to make serious mitigation possible is not merely untrue, it is irresponsible.

The technofix is in

An Ecomodernist Manifesto does not offer a new way out of the climate morass, but only a warmed-over version of the old-fashioned American technofix. Politics has gone AWOL in it. The only place politics intrudes is where the manifesto bewails social and institutional obstacles to the further spread of nuclear power. So it is the greens who bring politics to the climate debate! This is not an accidental slip, for The Breakthrough Institute gives the impression of being motivated less by the vision of a great future on a human-regulated Earth than by animosity towards other environmentalists.

Predictably, the manifesto has been greeted with enthusiasm by various purveyors of climate science denial, like the National Review, the Fraser Institute and, in Australia, the Murdoch media’s chief promoter of climate denial and denigrator of renewables (the Australian’s Graham Lloyd.)

We cannot be held responsible for the supporters our ideas attract. Yet in pursuit of its bold new vision, The Breakthrough Institute has allied itself with some unsavory characters, like the American Enterprise Institute which has been active in promoting climate science denial and has been partly funded by Exxon and the Koch Brothers. Is this the “post-partisan politics” foreshadowed by “The Death of Environmentalism”? If so, it’s a tarnished vision and reflects The Breakthrough Institute’s self-defeating policy of cozying up to environmentalism’s natural enemies and alienating its most stalwart friends.

Disagreement within the broad coalition that is the environment movement is not only inevitable, but desirable, and that includes disputing the pros and cons of nuclear power. But one thing we all ought to agree on is the basic science of climate change, and any reasonable reading rules out a rosy view of what the Anthropocene holds in store for us.

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